England's Lovesick Ballad: Football, Brexit and a Rock 'n' Roll Eulogy
CLEETHORPES, United Kingdom -- A rock and roll singer named Rob Cross walked into the bar to watch the England game like a verse from one of his songs. He ordered a Budweiser longneck and found a spot on the worn upholstery with a good view of a TV. It had been pissing rain all day. The ceilings were low, the wood dark. This is where he's from, a weathered budget vacation town built for workers whose jobs long ago ceased to exist. The promenade of ice cream shops and arcades is one train stop from Grimsby, a dying fishing city whose ships once caught more cod than any fleet in the world.
It's a coastline of used to be.
"There's about two trawlers left in the docks," Cross said, peeling the back label off his beer. "It was the biggest fishing port in Europe. A lot of people blame the EU for the decline. I asked my dad about it, and he knows a lot about the fishing industry around here, and he was saying, yes, it's the EU. So a lot of people around here want to leave the EU."
Cross fronts a local band named Orphan Boy and writes most of the songs, which detail life in Grimsby, and the other British cities like it, places where an entire culture has suffered or vanished the past two generations: the steel of Sheffield, the mining of Burnley, the docks of Liverpool, and all those abandoned factories in between. Cross sings, in a song called "Thirtysomething Lovesick Ballad": "I ran beyond those dog-eared flats, deserted docks, with cobbled streets, where trawlers bang a dwindling beat for black and white boomtown days. It stretched for miles, on this northeast coast, those chemical plants just hang like ghosts, over a pale, industrial sky. And all the workforce shuffling through all the canteen doors and no one dreams of escape ... ."
Music doesn't pay the bills, so he teaches high school English to docktown kids whose first 16 years on earth have taught them not to believe much in hope. His students don't have a lot of aspirations, or more accurately, they don't have much belief in a system where those aspirations might be realized. He understands. He sees some of that in his own life, and even in how England plays on big football stages, as if somehow a cloud of national insecurity -- of once being the most powerful nation in the world and, year after year, becoming a little less powerful -- infects even that beloved institution.
"With England," said Sav, one of Rob's friends, "it's like you got bad karma."
But tonight, like every game, Rob and Sav starts off believing.
"I'm gonna be optimistic," Rob said, "and say they're gonna win this 3-1."
"I say 3-nil," Sav said.
CROSS LEFT HOME at 23, moving to Manchester with his bandmates to try to make it as rock stars. Their first single started getting regular airplay from an influential DJ, and just for a moment, they allowed themselves to believe. One day, when the single got played yet again on the radio, Rob's girlfriend looked at him and said, sort of stunned, "You're gonna make it."
They loved the Clash and the Pixies, whose influence could be heard in their songs, and the music scene in Manchester took notice. "There was a real buzz about it," Cross said. "I thought, 'S---, this is really happening.' We never really launched beyond that level."
In 2010, after having a son and realizing he needed to accept that real life one day arrives for every boyhood dreamer, he moved back to Cleethorpes and got a job as a teacher. The band broke up, and soon the other guys moved back to the Grimsby area, moving on with their lives. The pull proved too great, the feeling of something left undone, and they got back together.
A year ago, the band released a new record. The album, "Coastal Tones," is one of those rare nearly perfect documents of a time and a place, in the way that Bruce Springsteen's "Darkness on the Edge of Town" captured a post-industrial America. Reoccurring themes of lost hope and bleakness weave through the record. In the opening track, Cross describes returning home in defeat.
"All roads Eastwards to the faithful shores / And the outstretched arms of all that you came from. And it's all where you left it, in your childhood bedroom / On bookshelves, in boxes, now crumbling, neglected."
The band sings of soldiers in their hearts, and hunger in their eyes, and of burying the stars of their dreams, and how no little boy wants to grow up into the guy who puts the little blue cake in urinals. Clouds cover shoulders, sunlight gets buried, in a sky the same yellow color as nicotine-stained fingers. The songs vibrate with a sense of place: "the ass end of the British Isles, where no one cares and no one knows."
He's proud of the record, because he does see it as a letter from his world, and even if he never writes another song, he said something important and true. He hasn't written in a while. "It's dried out now," he said. "I feel like I've said what I need to say. The good thing about being a failed musician is when you feel like you've said what you needed to say, you can stop saying it. If you're successful, you've got to keep making s--- up."
He knows enough about real life now to know the score. For the 23-year-old version of himself who moved to Manchester, the songs were vehicles to a different life. Now he's 34, and the songs just exist to tell about the life he really lives.
"When I did it in the past," he said, "it was with the idea that it may take off and lead to something bigger. Now it probably won't."
The title song on the record, "Coastal Tones," is about the people watching football in this pub, about Rob and his bandmates, and the people they went to school with, and the kids Rob teaches now, about all the people who tried and failed to escape. In the song, a worker is returning from a day on the beach, to make it back for his night shift in a factory. By the last chorus, with the guitars and drums hammering away, picking up speed even, Rob is almost screaming the words: "Back to the walls again. Back to the clock card and the bell. Back to the red light. Back to the platform and the night."
THE EMPTY BUDWEISER longnecks clustered in the middle of the table, and at halftime, the bar served french fry sandwiches for £2.50. Sav rolled his own cigarettes. He and Rob went out to smoke, coming back to talk about Charles Dickens, and Dylan Thomas, and the bands they loved back in Manchester. They talked politics, too.
Nearly everyone in the country was doing the same thing.
Three days after the game, on June 23, Britain would vote on whether to stay or leave the European Union. Many people in Grimsby blame the EU's fishing quotas on their inability to compete, and the polling nationally shows a race too close to call. In cities and industries that benefit from a modern economy, there is a bafflement at how anyone could possibly want to leave.
Cross still wasn't sure which way he'd go. The angry and divisive campaign left him not really trusting either side. It's hard to know in a polarized world what is fact and what is spin.
"I haven't decided how I'll vote," he said. "I don't know if I will vote. You can never trust what you read or watch. Where do you get your opinions from?"
The second half started and England couldn't break through and the game finished as a scoreless draw, giving first place in the group to Wales. Outside, the sun was going down, leaving behind a bruised sky, and the silhouettes of the refineries, full of men and their clock cards and their bells. Sitting against the wall, with the St. George's Cross hanging behind them, Sav and Rob looked disgusted.
"F---ing hell," Sav said.
"This is England," Rob said. "This is what it's like. Frustrating. It's frustrating and disappointing."
A senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, Wright Thompson is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi.